May Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 8 years ago

The efforts to change the name of the North West Frontier Province have had an unforeseen effect: the ambitions of the people of Hazara and some groups in other provinces, in particular the Seraiki-speaking population of Punjab, to carve out their own provinces have received a tremendous boost. A fairly intense debate, on the rights and wrongs of these demands, has been generated and it will be in the interest of all parties if the arguments being advanced for and against the creation of new provinces are subjected to the test of logic and good sense.

The process may begin by addressing some basic questions.

The first question is this: what does history say about the existing provinces and issues relating to the creation of new ones?

Before the arrival of the British in the subcontinent, the Mughals had generally maintained as provinces the kingdoms they had incorporated into their territory. The British retained these divisions and helped the provincial communities to further develop their ethnic and linguistic features. Before the annexation of Oudh, Punjab, Sindh and Pakhtunkhwa, the North-Western Province comprised Agra and parts of western U.P. After the annexation of these territories, the provinces of Oudh and Agra were joined together to form the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (now simply the United Provinces or Uttar Pradesh). Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was united with parts of the Agra province and Delhi and became the province of Punjab, and Pakhtunkhwa was made a separate unit as the NWFP.

The British did not attempt any radical redemarcation of provinces and their most significant step in this direction, the division of Bengal into an East Bengal and a West Bengal, ended in failure. However, they did adopt a system of grading the provinces. Their oldest occupations, the Bengal, Madras and Bombay Presidencies – which were considered front-runners in the race to acquire the image of British colonies – were the first to be graded as governors’ provinces. Other and ‘backward’ territories (including Punjab) were treated as Lt-governors’ or chief commissioners’ provinces till they too qualified as governor’s provinces. Transfer of districts/tracts from one province to another continued till after Partition (e.g. transfer of Attock from NWFP to Punjab or the changes in the status of Nasirabad district).

During the freedom movement many communities criticised the provincial boundaries and declared that that these had been arbitrarily drawn up, or at best to suit the alien rulers’ administrative needs. These elements demanded redemarcation of boundaries on ethnic and linguistic bases. The Indian Congress accepted these demands but the Muslim League did not agree to this line of argument, though it did demand separation of Sindh from Bombay and the grant of provincial status to Balochistan and Pakhtunkhwa on other grounds.

At independence, Pakistan comprised the provinces of East Bengal, West Punjab, Sindh, the NWFP, the chief commissioner’s province of British Balochistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The provincial maps changed with the accession of princely states. Bahawalpur was merged with Punjab, Khairpur with Sindh, the Balochistan states were joined with British Balochistan to form the larger province of Balochistan, and the states in the NWFP were attached to that province as Provincially Administered Tribal Areas.

The provinces in Pakistan’s western wing were merged into One Unit (to be called the province of West Pakistan) in 1955. This was thought of by some leaders of Punjab to counter East Bengal’s numerical superiority over the western wing and frame the first post-independence constitution on the basis of parity between the two parts of the country. The less populous provinces never accepted the monstrosity of One Unit and campaigned tirelessly for its undoing. General Yahya obliged them, for his own reason and the provinces were restored in 1970. It was only in the general elections held that year that Balochistan became a province in reality.

Matters relating to changes in the boundaries and names of provinces, and creation of new provinces were very much on the minds of Pakistan’s leaders around the time of independence. The reason could be lack of clarity about the accession of princely states and the status of territories that were included neither in a province nor in a princely state.

The first interim report of the Basic Principles Committee (set up on March 12, 1949), presented by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan on September 7, 1950, had the following articles:

4. Name and territories of the Federation:

The name of the state should be Pakistan, which should be a Federation of the governors’ provinces, the chief commissioner’s province, the Capital of the Federation, and such states that have acceded or may accede to the Federation.

5. Alteration of Boundaries and Names of provinces:

The central legislature may by law:

a) increase the area of any province;

b) diminish the area of any province;

c) alter the boundaries of any province;

d) alter the name of any province.

Provided that no Bill for the purpose should be introduced in either house of the central legislature except by the government of Pakistan, and unless

A. Representatives of the territory state so by a majority of the representatives of the people of the territory in the legislature of the province from which the territory is to be separated or excluded, or

A resolution in this behalf has been passed by the legislature of the province whose boundary or name will be affected by the proposed to be contained in the bill; and

B. Where the proposal contained in a Bill affects the boundaries or name of any province, the views of the legislature of the province, both with respect to the proposal to introduce the Bill and with respect to the provisions thereof have been ascertained by the Head of State.

6. Establishment of new provinces

The central legislature may, from time to time, by law, admit into the Federation, or establish, new provinces on such terms and conditions as it thinks fit. (This article paraphrased an article in the Indian constitution which says: The parliament may admit into the Union, or establish’ a new state on such terms and conditions as it thinks fit).

In the second BPC report (1953) certain changes were made in the relevant articles. A Bill to change the boundaries or name of any Unit (the new expression for province) could be moved only with the permission of the Head of State. If the initiative was taken by a unit, a resolution by the legislature of the unit was necessary. If the initiative was taken by the central government, the Head of State was required to have obtained the consent of the legislature of the unit concerned.

Some more changes were made in the final proposal drafted in 1954. The relevant article said:

The federal legislature may by law:

a) increase the area of any unit;

b) diminish the area of any unit;

c) alter the boundaries of any unit;

d) alter the name of any unit;

e) form a new unit by separation of territory from any unit or by uniting two or more units or parts of units or by uniting any territory to form a part of any unit. (Quite obviously the ground was being prepared for the creation of One Unit).

Had these provisions been retained in the constitution, the renaming of the NWFP or acceptance of the demands of the Hazara people or Seraikis could have been decided by the federal legislature. But once One Unit had been formed, the country’s custodians decided that provincial boundaries/names could not be changed by ordinary legislation. They made such changes possible only through constitutional amendments.

Thus, the 1956 Constitution discarded all formulas mentioned earlier under the heading “Alteration of boundaries and names of provinces” and simply said this:

“The territories of Pakistan shall comprise the territories of the provinces of East Pakistan and West Pakistan.” It was added by way of explanation that East Pakistan meant East Bengal and West Pakistan was the province set up by the Establishment of West Pakistan Act 1955.

This formulation was retained in the constitutions of 1962 and 1973. However, after the break-up of the One Unit and the rise of Bangladesh the provinces had to be mentioned by their original names Balochistan, the NWFP, Punjab and Sind, and we arrived at the stage that a constitutional amendment was necessary to replace ‘Sind’ with ‘Sindh’ and ‘NWFP’ with ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.’

The only reference to alteration of a province’s boundaries now in the constitution is in Article 239(4) which says: “A Bill to amend the Constitution which would have the effect of altering the limits of a province shall not be passed by the National Assembly unless it has been approved by a resolution of the provincial assembly of that province passed by the votes of not less than two thirds of the total membership of that assembly.” (1973 provision that has survived changes made by General Zia).

It is clear that the renaming of the NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was not affected by this article. However, no amendment to create a Hazara or Seraiki province will be possible without a Pakhtunkhwa or Punjab Assembly resolution adopted by a two-thirds majority.

The advocates of redrawing of provincial boundaries fall into two groups. One group demands provincial status in order to revive the status its territories enjoyed at some point in recent history. This is the basis of the demand for the revival of British Balochistan and the former Bahawalpur state as provinces. In both cases the demand for provincial status took shape years ago. The other group comprises advocates of provincial status on the grounds of the relevant communities’ linguistic and ethnic characteristics and it includes the Hazara people, the Seraikis outside the Bahawalpur division, and the Balochi-speaking people of Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur districts. Had the All-India Muslim League accepted the principle of reorganisation of provinces on linguistic and ethnic basis the matter could have been resolved a little more easily. But apart from the old Muslim Leaguers who claim to be the sole protectors of the ideology of Pakistan, the strong religio-political lobby in the country considers provincialism and nationalism contrary to the ideal of a Muslim millat. However, it may not be amiss to recall an event when the Quaid-e-Azam had to take up cudgels in defence of the NWFP’s right to provincial status.

The Government of India Act 1919 had introduced an element of representative rule and allotment of some portfolios to non-official ministers. The NWFP was denied the benefit of this reform. The British thought the people of the territory had not acquired the competence to deserve the first steps towards representative government. In 1922 an NWFP inquiry committee recommended extension of reforms to the province, but the central government took no action.

A resolution was moved in the central assembly in 1926 that called for extending constitutional reform to the NWFP. The move was opposed by both the British government and Congress. Some of the Congressmen pleaded that the settled districts of the NWFP be merged with Punjab. (they thought the small non-Muslim population of the NWFP would benefit from joining the sizeable non-Muslim population of Punjab).

While opposing the NWFP’s merger with Punjab, the Quaid-i-Azam said: “The people of NWFP linguistically, ethnologically, geographically, and in every other sense, are different from the people of Punjab, and why are you going to force these people, against their will and against the will of the Punjab itself, to be amalgamated with Punjab? Sir, it is not a small province. It is a province with a population of two million.”

One does not know what weight the Quaid’s words carry in today’s Pakistan. The material fact is that sizeable groups in Hazara, the Seraiki belt and in former British Balochistan, including Muslim Leaguers of various hues and clerics in politics, have been carried away by their emotions and want provincial status.

The overriding consideration in these quarters seems to be their desire to enjoy the fruits of provincial status – their separate governor, separate assembly, separate bureaucracy and power to use resources. These are the prizes the elite of the separatist factions have apparently set their hearts on.

There is nothing wrong with such ambition, but the other side of the picture cannot be ignored. The masses have many advantages in being in a larger unit and these may not be available to them if they break away and become citizens of a smaller and less resourceful unit.

Besides, the question of the economic cost associated with the making of new provinces cannot be ignored. If the Hazara division is made a province with its chief minister claiming equality in power and prestige with the Punjab/Sindh chief minister and its bureaucrats also seeking similar privileges, the consequences can be imagined. In the end the masses may have to pay a heavier price for sacrificing their lives for their elite’s glory and being eventually left out in the cold.

And yet the right of any people to demand changes in their political structure cannot be denied.

One serious problem in creating new provinces is the likely impact on the status and powers of the Senate. The less populous provinces have hitherto opposed splitting Punjab into two or three units on the ground that it will lead to Punjab’s hegemony in the Senate. On the other hand, Punjab is wary of a situation that may reduce its weight in the Senate from 1/4th to 1/5th or 1/7th of the total.

The only conclusion possible is that the question of satisfying sub-provincial groups’ wishes for autonomy and developing a more balanced federation demand a great deal of serious research on the political and economic implications of the various ideas so far floated. Hasty decisions will create more problems than they will solve.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.